Recess for American students seems to be going the way of the dodo. Back in the halcyon days when I was in elementary school in the 1970s in northern California, I remember having a 20-minute recess midway through the morning, a half-hour recess after lunch and another 15- or 20- minute recess in the afternoon for a whopping total of at least 65 minutes of recess. When I was in fifth grade, we moved to Oakland and, while we still had the 30-minute post-lunch recess, the morning and afternoon ones were only 10 minutes long, for a total of 50 minutes of recess.
65 minutes of recess, 50 minutes of recess: These are shocking figures compared to the 26 minutes of recess per day that American kids average, according to an op-ed in the New York Times by author David Bornstein. Even though, as he writes “there is strong evidence that school-based physical activity improves children’s cognitive skills, concentration and behavior, possibly by influencing their brain’s physiology,” recess has been getting progressively shorter over the years, as school districts have sought to maximize instruction time.
Furthermore, almost 90 percent of disciplinary problems occur during recess, lunch or the transition periods before and afterwards:
Principals say recess is not what it used to be. Many children spend much of their time in the schoolyard standing around idly or playing free-for-all games that get out of control. Recess has always been a time of teasing, bullying and scraped knees, but principals report that injuries and fights in elementary schools are more prevalent and more serious than in the past.
“Recess is meaner than it used to be,” one Oakland principal told me. That’s why some educators have decided they can do without it. Others have instituted “zero tolerance” no-fighting policies, with mandatory suspensions for schoolyard altercations, sending home perpetrators — predominately African American boys — who are as young as six years old. Others have dealt with the problems by banning games like tag.
Bornstein proposes that, in order to provide kids with enough stamina to help them sit in their seats and focus, play is needed. A positive change that schools can make is to offer students more structured play. He notes one nonprofit that provides this:
One approach that has been advanced successfully comes from an Oakland-based nonprofit organization called Playworks, which operates in nearly 250 urban schools serving low-income students in 15 cities and has a long waiting list of principals who are willing to spend $25,000 to bring the program to their schools. One Baltimore principal told me: “I will get rid of the computer room before I get rid of this program.”
Playworks sends trained, full-time play coaches into schools who organize an array of play opportunities for children during recess and lunch, as well as in class and after school. The coaches — typically recent college graduates who are delighted to come to work in sneakers every day — become like faculty members. The kids call them by their first names — “Coach Joe” or “Coach Eunice,” for example — and teachers say they often become the most popular adults in the school.
Perhaps such programs seem over-protective and stifling of children’s creativity. But, for more than a few school districts, organized play is far better than disorderliness and discipline problems.
Certainly my own son Charlie would not do well in school without having his time at his desk interspersed with physical activity. Charlie attends a county autism center in New Jersey; he has done well in his time there, in no small part because the school is located in a huge building and he’s able to go for walks and even runs (they have a track) no matter what the weather. Prior to being at this center, Charlie was in a special education classroom located in a public middle school where he had gym once a day at 8:30am. He floundered at the school for a number of reasons, but one was that he had very limited physical activity and at a time when he was becoming an adolescent with a changing body. As a middle school, there was no recess and certainly no playground; on the occasions when I stopped into the school, I often detected a bit of sadness among the students, rushing so seriously from class to class. Recess was a far away memory.
Bornstein also notes that kids today just don’t get outside enough and, when they do, it’s in adult-organized activities. Today’s children spend six or severn hours with “personal use media;” young people between the ages of 10 to 16 “engage in vigorous activity for only 12.6 minutes per day — nowhere near the 60 minutes that the surgeon general recommends.”
It has been said before, but we appear to be on our way to raising a nation of electronic-gadget-dependent couch potatoes. Sure we want to teach kids to sit and focus but maybe we also need to start teaching them to run around in the sunshine and, well, to play.
Photo by carlos.a.martinez.